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We Need All Ages

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I distinctly remember Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s sermon at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2015. She referenced “Talitha Cum” and said “…Mother Church will continue rising from the dead if we keep crossing into new territories, in our back yards, prisons, city parks, and pockets of despair, here and across the globe. If we believe, if we’re faithful, we know that the ancient truth remains, and resurrection is always emerging from death. That healing may cost plenty of blood, sweat, and tears—but it is rooted in the firm belief that God does enlighten, heal, and deliver.” 

God does indeed enlighten, heal, and deliver; we are experiencing this at the South Bronx Team Ministry, which is comprised of the parishes of San Juan de Bautista, St. David’s, and St. Simeon’s. From our initial collaboration, we recognized the need to grow not only our church community but our declining youth population. Inclusion of the youth has been a primary focus of our ministry. After all, they are our future; we would like them to carry on our legacy. We believed.

The Rev. Bertram Bennett, Jr. served until recently as our priest-in-charge; he strongly encouraged our youth to be more than bench warmers. In addition to Sunday School, he whetted their appetites by allowing them to serve as acolytes and to participate in the worship as readers on the first Sunday of every month.  In June, we’d celebrate with an annual Youth Day service at which a graduating senior would deliver an address in lieu of a sermon. Other youths participated by reading the lessons, while various performances showcased blossoming talents.

Throughout the year we sponsored Saturday programs for elementary students within our church family and community. Steel pan playing, singing, dancing, games, and fellowship were offered. Our goal was to attract young families with children; we hoped that if parents were comfortable to bring their children to the Saturday program, then they may become comfortable enough to regularly attend our Sunday services. The Saturdays’ stable attendance in fact had no marked effect on Sundays’ attendance, but the students kept on returning every Saturday. At least every three or so months they enjoyed outings.  We remained faithful.

Like other parishes during this pandemic, we experienced disruption. Many of the adults among us were unable to adapt to the new norm of virtual worship. When has there ever not been the option of attending church in a building during a crisis? Imagine the loss endured by the youth—both those in our church family and the ones in the community who had come to relish the relationships that they’d formed. Social interaction became nonexistent. Learning about God’s word in a group of their peers had come to a halt. As a way to address this immense loss, our youth leaders, Mrs. Damaris Joseph Moquete and Mrs. Yeissi Alvarez Vogel, with the priest’s approval, established a virtual biweekly youth program. The students, from age 11 to 18 years, logged on every Monday and Thursday evening at 7 p.m. during the pandemic. During these sessions they watched and discussed various movies which focused on personal life choices. In addition, they played games, which have provided an outlet for healthy competition. Occasionally, some parents would join in as well. On Good Friday, the youth shared their interpretations of the “seven last words on the cross”—virtually, of course. At this year’s Youth Sunday service, graduating seniors, Kile Crosbie and Kevin Castillo, were the address presenters.

Kile, a member of St. Simeon’s shared:

I want to take some time real quick to reflect on two things. One being my experience as a part of the youth group and another to talk about the future. Now my view of the group is completely different from what it was in the beginning. Looking at my views now, I think my experience was great. It opened me up to new opportunities and new things, I’ve met some amazing people, and we had a lot of fun. And even though near the end I couldn’t join as much as I used to, I still tried to join whenever I was available. I also want to say ‘good job’ adapting to the COVID changes and hosting the group online. Most people struggle trying to adapt with changes and I think you guys did a good job at it. Like I said before, my view of the group was different. In the beginning, when I was first in the group, you could tell I wasn’t fond of the idea. I think my mindset then was something like  ‘waking up early on Saturday to go to church? Why would I want to do that when I could stay home and play video games?’” Little did I know, after a year of being inside video games get boring VERY fast. I thought I didn’t need to be here because I already had good knowledge of the Bible. However once actually in the group, while we learned about the Bible more, we also did other things than just learn. One of the more important things we learned was how to be a leader. Which brings me to the future of the youth. The youth group not only taught us more about God, but also how to be leaders. Do not be afraid to speak out. If you asked me to do this reflection a year ago, I would’ve been nervous; I would’ve sounded very quiet and probably stumbled over my words. But because of the experience of them trying to make us into leaders, I can say all of this to all of you. They are the foundation for the youth. It is now up to them to expand on what they taught us and do the same for others. To prepare the next generation for the ones after them. And if you ever feel like your work is for nothing, remember this; just because people don’t go around saying how great you are like some famous leaders in history, your impact on others will always be with them, just like how the youth group has had an impact on myself.”

Kevin, a member of Misión de San Juan Bautista shared:

“Hola mi nombre es Kevin. Honestamente, solo quiero agradecerles por este programa y la reunión todos los lunes y jueves. Realmente me gusta cómo pudimos unirnos y convertirnos en una familia el uno con el otro. Se sintió bien poder compartir con la gente del grupo y también escucharlos compartir. Y también pasamos momentos divertidos en los que hicimos actividades juntos y las compartimos juntos. Y gracias a este grupo descubrimos cómo mantenernos unidos y conectados durante esta pandemia, nada nos impidió aprender las palabras de Dios. Gracias por aceptarme y tenerme aquí.”

[Translation: “Hello my name is Kevin. I honestly just want to say thank you for this program and the gathering every Monday and Thursday. I really like how we were able to come together and become a family with each other. It felt good to be able to share with the people in the group and also to hear them share. And we also had an enjoyable time doing activities together and sharing them together. And thanks to this group, we found a way to stay together and connected during this pandemic and nothing stopped us learning God’s word. Thank you for accepting me and having me here.”]

In addition, the students shared a collectively produced poem describing what the virtual youth program means to them:

Youth Program Experience

We learned it doesn’t matter what you have or given; it matters how much work you put into it.

We learned that we could do anything if we put our mind to it. 

We learned in a different perspective by watching movies and we learned how God will always be there for us. 

It was exciting to watch inspirational movies to create ideas for us

Perseverance through hard challenges is how we grow as people.

It teaches us how God loves one and everyone

There is more than one way to get to your goals

We joined to have fun and because God is our main priority.

The program was inspirational and taught us how to do things in more ways than one.

It was fun, we played games and learned about team effort.

Great work comes with achievement.

Work hard and you will succeed. 

Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible.

This describes our experiences in the virtual youth program.

We learned, we laughed, we believe, we are thankful.

_______________

This past Saturday, they all enjoyed their very first outing together since our initial lockdown at Rye Playland,. What a thrilling feeling!

As our team ministry begins to construct plans for in-person worship and what is to be our new normal, we want to be very mindful of this tenuous population, our youth. As aging adults, we have high expectations for them in the future of the Church. We ought to be accommodating, accepting, and open to listening to their ideas and more modern ways of performing tasks. This is not to say that the elderly should cast aside their years of experience, because these stories need to be heard as well; some common ground needs to be established.  We need to hear and see each other as we resurrect.